Federal control polarizes district D.C. residents voice anger, gratitude


WASHINGTON -- To Kwame Brown, the power shake-up in the district government last week has rattled his faith in democracy. To Gerald Neill, it has finally offered a measure of hope in the city where he was born.

The two are walking in separate directions on Capitol Hill, their minds on the same place, their voices far apart. Like other Washington residents, they are trying to make sense of the federal government's move to vastly expand its control over their city in crisis.

With the enactment of one sweeping federal plan, they saw their mayor stripped of most of his powers, their leadership delivered to new authorities and their representation in local government diluted.

"Am I a citizen anymore?" Brown, 25, a bank manager, asks as he heads up Pennsylvania Avenue in the shadow of the Capitol. "I feel we've lost something important."

Across the street, there is nothing but relief: "I've waited a long time for change," says Neill, 44, a police officer who was grabbing a cup of coffee before another overtime shift. "We couldn't keep going the way we were."

Throughout this city, the government shake-up has had a sharply polarized effect.

At a demonstration of 300 people outside the White House on Monday, 13 protesters were arrested. When the district's federally appointed control board convened Tuesday, a dozen more were handcuffed as riot police stood guard.

But elsewhere in the city, other residents expressed acceptance, even gratitude. The swipe at home rule -- the limited form of self-government that gives the district semi-independence -- offered promise to some. Their vision: a city freed from high crime, failing schools, mismanaged services.

The plan grants hundreds of millions of dollars in federal relief, assumes the city's $4.9 billion pension liability and takes responsibility for 70 percent of the city's Medicaid bill. In return, the federal government has given the control board far-reaching authority to hire, fire and manage spending. That power is, simultaneously, removed from the mayor and the city's other elected officials.

This federal presence is expected to remain dominant for at least four years, after which the control board would presumably have submitted four balanced budgets and could be disbanded. The board, a nonelected five-member panel, was created in 1995 to rescue the nearly bankrupt district.

Promise worth the price?

But the latest effort to control district affairs has left some residents wondering whether the promise of a healthier city is worth the price of giving up home rule. To Brown, it is bad enough that the district's one congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, has no vote. Now he feels even more disenfranchised.

"My vote should count," he says. "Someone has to say, 'That's crazy, that's ludicrous -- how can these people live here without any voting power, who can't elect officials?' "

But Neill, an 18-year veteran on the force, says the first priority should be addressing the city's ills. An officer in the gun recovery unit, he is particularly concerned about the loss of police staffing and funding over recent years.

"We've got to start holding people accountable," Neill says. "We should be a citizenship full of achievers, not everybody just taking what they can get."

Just as in 1995, the federal presence carries a racial charge. The newly strengthened control board is a black-majority panel led by Andrew Brimmer, a distinguished African-American economist with long ties to the district. But the board and the new district relief plan are the creations of a largely white Congress. Living out these federal decisions are the city's residents, about two-thirds of whom are black.

Some of the most passionate moral outrage over federal control has come from the black community -- from national civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson to longtime residents such as Jackie Bennett.

Bennett sees the federal plan as paternalistic and condescending. In her mind, the chief perpetrator is Sen. Lauch Faircloth, the North Carolina Republican who helped draft the agreement.

"What right does he have to come here and tell me how to live my life?" she says. "What Faircloth is telling me is that I am too incompetent to elect my own representatives. How dare he?"

Faircloth casts his motives differently. He said in a recent statement that to create "real management reform," his plan needed to strike "a blow to defenders of the status quo."

'We're going backward'

For activists who helped win home rule for the district in the 1970s, last week's events seemed like a kick in the stomach. Walter Washington, who was the city's first mayor after 100 years of federal control, worries that the recent developments could eventually kill any semblance of independence for the district.

"We fought so hard, for years and years, to get the minimum of home rule that we got," says Washington, 78. "Now I think we're going backward."

But business leaders say they have more practical concerns -- for starters, the migration of commerce from downtown to the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, the federal government's downsizing in the district, and the city's difficulties attracting new business.

From the offices of Pardoe Real Estate, Don Denton considers the latest events. Asked about what Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. has called "the rape of democracy," Denton's reply is decidedly cool.

"Quite frankly, we don't care," he says, unblinking.

Truth be told, he and his colleagues appreciate the federal help. "We want to be safe on our streets. We want to be able to educate our children and play on our playgrounds. My business is good, but it could be great. We shouldn't have to live like this."

Denton, like other Realtors, applauds the money that accompanies the legislation. It promises, among other things, $5,000 tax credits to first-time homebuyers.

Perhaps, he says, the control board will restore the quality of the city's public schools -- the main reason, he says, that prospective buyers turn down his properties. But such help could be a long way off: Last week, the district's education chief announced that schools would open three weeks late because of needed building repairs.

Still, Denton hopes the federal aid can revive the city, whose population has sunk to roughly 550,000, its lowest since 1933.

To some, these problems -- high crime, ailing schools, dwindling population -- all circle back to Barry. Some residents are ready to declare this the final chapter in his career, the end of a remarkable political revival that began when he returned from prison after a 1990 misdemeanor drug conviction. The mayor's second coming, they say, is over.

The federal efforts aim straight at the heart of Barry's power. Instead of presiding over a $5 billion budget and controlling nearly two dozen different branches of city government, he will now handle a budget one-fiftieth the size and just six small-scale city agencies.

But obituary writers have learned to keep their pens capped when it comes to Marion Barry. He has been mayor 15 of the past 19 years, outlasting imperial highs and devastating lows. He has not ruled out a bid for mayor in 1998. Even now, his pull remains strong.

"Is ousting Mayor Barry the right thing?" Brown, the bank manager, asks as he considers the district's plight. "Every city has problems. Has Mayor Barry done a good job? Yes, he has."

Brown's faith arises from personal experience. He was expelled from a public school in Virginia. So he came to the district and entered Woodrow Wilson, the city's high-achieving public high school. He joined Barry's Youth Leadership Institute, a program meant to encourage inner-city youth, earned a college scholarship and sought out a career in business.

Brown feels he has made it. But the city that helped him has not fared as well. Next year, the youth leadership program's budget will be cut by 50 percent, another victim of what critics call the district's bloated government.

"It's sad," Brown says. And it seems he feels the solemn weight of that word.

Pub Date: 8/10/97

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad